Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Response to Dahlia Lithwick on Parental Alienation Syndrome

The other day, Dahlia Lithwick, wrote an article in Slate about Parental Alienation Syndrome called, “Mommy Hates Daddy, and You Should Too: The extraordinary fight over ‘parental alienation syndrome’ and what it means for divorce cases.” A friend shared it with me, and it made me fairly angry, so I took some of my own advice and waited to respond rather than react. But I think the existence of this article says a lot about what we need to do as a profession in terms of changing the rules . . . for ourselves and the families we serve.

First, why was I angry? Personally, I have a lot of respect for Dahlia Lithwick. Other than family law, the class I loved most in law school was constitutional law, and Lithwick used to write the Supreme Court articles for the New York Times. She was great at seeing all sides of an issue. In fact, the same friend who share this post with me shared her other one – a post about how we might need to think judicial review. That is a radical idea, and one with which she admitted she was uncomfortable, but she wrote about it anyway because it is an important issue to consider.

Thus, I was most upset by the fact that her article is so one-sided on a topic that has layers and layers and layers of complexity. The article is about the impending decision on whether to include Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (“DSM”). The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts conference had a plenary on this last year in Denver (and their conference in Orlando is coming up next week). This is an important issue, and it requires more than a single post on Slate to discuss, perhaps most because of something Lithwick points out herself, “The most worrisome aspect of the legal fight over parental alienation syndrome may be that it divides supporters and opponents along strict gender lines: As a rule, this is classed as a women's sickness alleged by men.” What this means is that it is an emotional issue for many people, and it forces people to take sides. The debate keeps people from hearing the other side. Each side has its experts and supporters, and if left to this status quo, the discussion could stay there. There are many willing to have the discussion, but when the loudest people are the ones fortifying the divide, their voices are silenced.

Lithwick then takes the big picture approach and chooses one side, so much so that she denies those opposed to her viewpoint any ability to think rationally in her worldview. She says, “There are a lot of websites, experts, and emotion invested in this debate. But there aren't two empirical sides. There is science, and then there is passionate non-science.” She bases this statement on the fact that many well-respected organizations in the United States have recognized that the theory underpinning PAS is invalid, including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Lithwick gets close to the real issue when she discusses the people who talk about PAS not as a syndrome, but as a set of behaviors. It was there that my anger almost dissipated . . . until she failed to continue down that path. She did what the system tends to do so often, and what harms the families who enter it so much – she paid short shrift to the real issue, to the difficult discussion, to the nitty gritty, instead focusing on words and symptoms that have broad meaning and little meaning to individual people. She used her platform to silence the gray areas, and she fortified the black and white positions.

Thus, the biggest danger I see with Lithwick’s article is the fact that it is in Slate, and she is so well respected. People have reason to believe it tells a fair story. But what it does is exactly what the system often forces people to do – it pits one side against the other with no space for gray. It says that one side is supported by science and the other side only by passion. Even the title of the piece hits this dichotomy – it only refers to divorce, as though divorce is the only time that the issues surrounding alienation can occur. It is not.

The truth is much grayer, and the one thing for which I am most grateful to Lithwick is that she inspired me to go down the path of PAS so soon. Therefore, the next post will focus on this gray area, on the debate's substance. But the point for this post is that we can have our discussions as professionals, and we can discuss best practices and how to help children and families, but one of the most important things we can do is educate – educate our clients, educate the public, and even educate the media. We can educate that life need not be so black and white even in an adversarial system (which hopefully will change as well).

We need to move into the gray. We need to have the truly difficult discussions without thinking that one side is fully supported by science and the other side only by passion, as though being driven by emotion is a problem. Families are about emotion. They are also about science. But most importantly they are individualistic, and when we start thinking too globally we lose sight of the very people standing right in front of us.

I think the world of Dahlia Lithwick, and I hope that she joins this discussion with all of its nuance. I think she has a platform from which she can spread great information. But it needs to be fully engaged. In the next post, we will discuss more of the gray that surrounds PAS or the behaviors that have led people to believe that a syndrome is gospel.

What did you think when you read her article?

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. I agree about what was unfortunate about Ms. Lithwick's article, although I feel less charitable about her thoroughness or objectivity. A simple internet search would have revealed the existence of AFCC, the years of scholarship between Gardner and the present day, the research from related areas of psychology that underscore that many component behaviors of alienation (and its effects) can be well validated in the psychological literature, and many objective - NON-GENDER-BIASED, experts whom Ms. Lithwick could have contacted. She makes herself available only on facebook - doesn't seem to have a published email address at any of the organizations she writes for. Perhaps she does not intend to convey the impression that she is uninterested in other points of view. She also probably didn't intend to give license to men who undermine their children's relationships with their mothers, or to undermine the professionals who work with these difficult cases and eschew the gender wars. Journalists like clean lines and high contrast - the real world, particularly that part that impacts children, often exists in shades of grey. I will know about what to think of Dalia Lithwick when I see if she responds to you.

  2. That was supposed to say - I will know MORE about what to think of Dalia Lithwick when I see if she responds to you, or to others who have contacted her. Perhaps she should start with the special issues of Family Court Review on alienation, read forward, and publish a "part 2."

  3. Lyn, thank you for your comments. My respect for Ms. Lithwick goes way back, but here she easily could have found the more nuanced approach. Let us hope that the response to her article instigates a part 2 as you say.

  4. Rebecca,

    I'm thrilled that you wrote this blog. You've done a great job of identifying the problem in black/white thinking of any particularly complex issue. I find the same thing happens when people talk about relocation issues, domestic violence issues, and other complex issues that lend themselves to simplistic thinking. Worse yet, with alienation, the polarization in the politics and gender wars mirrors the polarization in the family. I look forward to your next blog on the topic so that I can see how well you've learned what was discussed at the recent AFCC meeting, or from our lengthy discussion on this topic :-)

  5. Thanks for the comment and for all of the help understanding these tough issues.

  6. What is meant by parental alienation syndrome?

    Sylvia Miller
    Divorce Help solutions

  7. Sylvia, generally Parental Alienation Syndrome is when one parent (the alienating parent) makes up stories about the other parent (the alienated parent) to ensure that the child says he does not want to live with the alienated parent. The situation that evokes the most debate is when the mom tells the child that the dad abused the child and/or the mom, so child says he does not want to live with dad. People argue about whether it is real because some people think that no one ever lies about these issues, and others think that it is the case anytime a child does not want to see a parent. That is why it requires so much nuance in individual cases and why I thought that Lithwick's response was so limited and unprofessional. Does that begin to answer your question?